After seeing his team would open the NCAA men's hockey tournament against Notre Dame, Gophers coach Don Lucia couldn't resist a quip. "I thought Big Ten teams couldn't play each other in the first round,'' he said. "But I guess that's for next year.''
The Fighting Irish will join the Big Ten as a hockey-only member next season. While the fifth-ranked Gophers aren't their conference cousins yet, the teams enter Saturday's Northeast Regional game with plenty of familiarity. The Gophers, who received the No. 1 seed for the regional in Manchester, N.H., played No. 10 Notre Dame — their coach's alma mater — eight times in the previous five seasons.
As the fourth overall seed, the Gophers were sent east when the 16-team NCAA field was announced Sunday. UMass-Lowell will play Cornell in the regional's other first-round game at SNHU Arena, with the winners facing off Sunday for a berth in the Frozen Four on April 6-8 in Chicago.
The only other in-state team to make the tournament was Minnesota Duluth, the No. 1 seed in the West Regional in Fargo and No. 2 seed overall. Third-ranked UMD opens play Friday at Scheels Arena against Ohio State. North Dakota and Boston University will meet in the other first-round game of the Fargo regional.
Top-ranked Denver is seeded No. 1 overall and headlines the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati, and second-ranked Harvard, seeded third overall, is the No. 1 seed for the East Regional in Providence, R.I.
"We kind of have a feel for each other, even though we didn't play this year [in the regular season],'' Lucia said of Notre Dame. "We know how Jeff [Jackson] coaches. They're familiar with our personnel and how we've played.
"We know them, and they know us. It should be a great matchup.''
The venue is familiar, too. The Gophers, who set an NCAA record with their 37th invitation to the tournament, played in the Northeast Regional at SNHU Arena in 2015 and lost in the first round to UMD.
After missing the tournament last year, the Gophers put themselves in position to return with solid play throughout the season. Lucia, who is well-versed in the algorithms of NCAA tournament selection and placement, said the Gophers could have been either the fourth or sixth overall seed depending on the outcomes of other games Saturday. They got the last No. 1 seed when North Dakota lost to UMD in the final of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference tournament, and Wisconsin lost to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament championship game.
The No. 10 Irish (21-11-5) finished fourth in Hockey East in the regular-season standings. The Gophers are 27-15-3 against Notre Dame, including a first-round NCAA tournament victory in 2004.
"We haven't played them this year, but we kind of know their style,'' Gophers captain Justin Kloos said. "They're good offensively, and their offensive defensemen like to get up in the play. It's a tough regional, but at this point in the season, you're going to have to beat a good team every night to keep your season alive.''
The Gophers lost to Penn State 4-3 in double overtime Friday in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. The Nittany Lions, who won their first Big Ten tourney title, will make their NCAA tournament debut Saturday vs. Union in Cincinnati. The Big Ten got three teams into the field for the first time.
Despite the loss, Lucia was happy with his team's performance in the semifinal. The Gophers took Saturday and Sunday off, and to ensure they are well-rested for the NCAA tournament, they are likely to get another day off Tuesday.
"Looking at our regional, it's safe to say any of the four teams [could advance],'' Lucia said. "It will be very, very competitive.''